Monday

Money, Power & Respect


"That must have been a great loss for you," The Benefactor said, "losing your cousin."

"Actually, I don't feel one way or the other about losing Cuzzo," I told her, because of something he said to me on his deathbed. The Benefactor said it was a blessing I got to speak with him before he passed; many others don't have that opportunity. She encouraged me to proceed.

When I was 11 years old, that whole side of my family was summoned to the hospital by The Elders. Cuzzo was sick with what they told me was A Big Heart. Having too big of a heart seemed like a small thing to take Cuzzo down. I thought nothing could take him down.

Cuzzo had one of The Elders contact my grandma with a specific request to see me. The day my mom and I stopped by, he spoke with both of us briefly, then asked to speak to me alone.

I stood near the door wanting to escape, but Cuzzo gestured for me to come closer. He was so thin and fragile-looking with tubes and wires poking out everywhere, the complete opposite of how I remembered him.

"Don't be scared, now," he said. "You're never scared." He gave a dry laugh that sounded more like a cough.

"Come closer so I can see that pretty face of yours."

As I sat bedside, Cuzzo told me he was going to die soon. I asked of what, since it seemed to be a lot more than just A Big Heart.

"AIDS," Cuzzo said faintly. I didn't know what AIDS was but assumed it was pretty serious to lay Cuzzo out like that.

"I don't have much time left, baby girl," he said, "but I want you to know that even though I won't be here physically, I'll always be with you. Remember what I taught you as a little girl. Don't miss me when I'm gone."

“Huh?” I said, perplexed. I didn't know how not to miss him.

"In our family somebody's always dying or being born. There's always somebody to take somebody else's place."

I wondered who would take his.

"What I'm about to tell you don't ever forget," Cuzzo said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Keep beating the other side, just like me and your grandma taught you."

He paused, inhaling deeply.

"Your cousins, teach them what you know. They might not say much but they do look up to you."

"I'm only 11, though," I said. "I don't think people will listen to me."

"F*ck other people, listen to your grandma, me, and yourself," Cuzzo said. "Remember, I've always been part of you, ever since that other game. Listen to us.”

Cuzzo followed up by saying that if he had his way, he would have never had me in that other game. 


“It is what it is, though,” and I knew exactly what he meant: since Cuzzo received those orders from someone who outranked him, his hands were tied in the situation.

“Your grandma took over for me after that other game, and that's alright. Us three, we're a lot alike. Listen to your grandma and me and soon you’ll take over yourself."

"Take over what?" I asked.

"Take over The Game. You got their Money as a little girl. I gave you Power. Now get their Respect. All of it."

"How?" I asked him, as usual.

"By any means necessary," Cuzzo said.

A few minutes passed and Cuzzo fell silent. I picked up his arm by the wrist; it fell limply by his side. I buzzed the nurses, who came rushing into the room. They ushered me out of the room and down the hallway where my mom was waiting.

The next day I got a call from The Elder who put me in that other game, asking what my cousin told me on his deathbed. With Granny listening in on a separate line, I told her Cuzzo told me to come for the other side’s Money, Power & Respect by any means necessary.

The Elder laughed.

“Your cousin’s gay,” she said. “It’s why you were able to spend so much time with him growing up.  It’s also how he died of AIDS. Since he tells you so much, did he tell you that?”

The AIDS part, yes. But Cuzzo, gay? Considering the source, I was skeptical.

 “He had new girlfriends every week, though… how can he be gay?” I asked.

The Elder laughed again and said those women weren’t his girlfriends, they were his employees. Granny took over the conversation at that point, rushing me off the phone.

“This Elder added another piece to the puzzle, eh?” said The Benefactor. “And Cuzzo’s a gay pimp, look at that.”

We chuckled.

“Bit by bit we’re finding out how that closet of stacks was built,” she continued. “Gambling, extortion, prostitution… sounds like a true gangster story to me,” she said.

“Now, when gangsters die, it’s usually quite the spectacle: an all-out affair. Tell me about his funeral.”


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Tuesday

The Study

First semester of my eighth grade year, I entered The Study. Teacher found someone outside the school and familiar with kids like me who offered to help. A benefactor, if you will.

First I had to take a series of tests, including an IQ test. When the results came back, my new benefactor was in a cheerful mood. Half-jokingly, I asked if I broke the tests.

"No, but you did score higher than most kids. Most adults, even. It's not everyday I come across a certified genius," she said.

Like my English teacher, The Benefactor wanted to know why my reaction was so subdued.

I told her bits and pieces of my story, how tough it is trying to find yourself in a family full of God-like egos, and how I missed just being a kid.

"You're not a child anymore," The Benefactor said. "In fact, it sounds like you haven't been a child for quite some time. Who wants to return back to childhood anyways?" The Benefactor shuddered dramatically at the very thought.

She told me stories like mine weren't uncommon in cities, and that gang initiations can start very young.

"The good news is there's a way out."

She told me gangs are only able to survive through group mentality and that I, being a genius, can beat the other side by breaking the mental chains associated with them.

"Ok… duh. My grandma and uncle told me that," I said, ever the know-it-all.

The Benefactor said she was glad they did and asked if they told me how.

"Various ways," I said cryptically. It takes me a while to warm up to strangers.

The Benefactor said she could supplement their advice by offering help in the form of a five year plan: get out of The Life and that other game and into The Game.

The primary objective of The Game was to use my intelligence and unique skill sets to become part of a different gang: The Ivy League. Once there I could continue pursuing my goals of learning a lot and getting big money while in the company of like-minded people. The one caveat in receiving this help is that I had to tell my full story. How I rose through the ranks, so to speak.

I started out telling The Benefactor about Cuzzo and how he was an almighty presence from our very first interaction. The Benefactor asked where he was now and I told her Cuzzo had died two years earlier.

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Wednesday

Grandma's Girl

After getting out of that other game and coming back inside, my mom and I visited The Elders and The VIPs far less often. She wasn’t aware this other game had taken place, so it was difficult explaining the crowds of people greeting us and pressing dollar bills into my hands as we made our way to the apartment.

That’s when Granny, the second oldest Elder, took over.

At the time, Granny lived on the opposite side of the city, worlds away from the block where that other game took place. She and her six siblings—The Elders, collectively—grew up in a neighborhood similar to the one where that other game was played, a former slum where restaurants, coffee store chains, office buildings, and a Catholic high school for boys now stand. Growing up, she and her four sisters used to play the same game I did. Their two brothers and an endless supply of male cousins were the VIPs.

The Elders made tons of money over the years and split it up amongst themselves. When they started having kids and their kids starting having kids, some of them were taught that other game, too. A few made it out, but not with their minds intact. Most others didn’t make it out at all.

“I can’t believe she played that game with you, you’re just a kid!” Granny said after I came to her with all the money I’d made. Up to that point I’d just been holding the cash, unsure of what to do with it all. Spending it freely would have raised a lot of questions and brought some serious attention to that other game.

She plotted vengeance as we figured out how to get rid of the money. We consulted one of my five uncles for guidance. Unk has much experience with the other side, cleaning up the aftermath of their messes in court. He told me I’d avoided a big one playing that other game, but the good thing is I made at least 50 times my weekly allowance, if not more.

“Everything from here on out is small money, but never forget that you, as a person, are priceless,” he told me.

Ultimately, we gave the money away to a nearby church where our family has a dedicated pew.

After we got rid of the money, Granny asked me to give up the deets. If we’re going to beat them at their game, she said, I have to spill their secrets.

I thought I was already out of that other game, but Granny said that other game had just begun. I told her there weren’t many secrets to spill; nobody dared touch me in that other game, unless it was to hand me their money afterward. The biggest secret was one of my own: I’d won the game through reading Cuzzo’s mind.

Granny didn’t seem shocked and wasn’t in awe like the others were when I told them I could read minds. When I told her they thought I was an angel because of it, she guffawed, slapping the table to balance herself.

“You’re no angel, you’re a very lucky and smart little girl.”

Playing that other game, I had forgotten I was only seven.

“If you spend enough time with someone, after a while it is like you’re reading their mind,” Granny said.

“I can do it, too, you know. In fact, I taught The Elder who got you into this other game how to do it. That b*tch.”

Granny convinced me to disconnect from Cuzzo’s mind and suggested I start reading hers instead.

I was skeptical at first. Then again, I was skeptical of most adults after playing that other game.

The way Granny spit it, through observing, learning, and implementing her ways, I could win the game this Elder started with me.

“I don’t know why they chose you,” Granny said, “but they chose wisely, ‘cause I’m on your side. They won’t always listen to a little girl like you, but they’ll for damn sure listen to me.”

Once I accepted her offer, I was all Granny’s responsibility.

We connected immediately.

We stay out of the streets, inside is safer. Hoodrats disgust us, but their antics are amusing. We don’t listen to rap music, just the Top 50 charts and Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole if we’re feeling frisky—and only at a reasonable volume. We watch Matlock at 9 am, our block of soaps operas at noon, Oprah at 4 pm, and Golden Girls at 8 pm, and the news between shows. We go to bed early and wake up before dawn. We stock up on prunes and milk of magnesia to stay regular. We’re not big on flashy gifts or wads of cash, we prefer compliments on our cooking instead. Oh, and we take sh*t from no one, especially that b*tch next door that keeps letting her dog use our front lawn as a toilet.

Reading Granny was the anti-hood. As often as I could, I’d let her know how boring I found the new rules of the game.

“It’s more exciting than being dead in the streets,” she’d say. Point taken.

One day, Granny surprised me with an announcement: we were finally gonna get back into this gangsta sh*t I kept talking about—and getting hit with a fly swatter for for saying “gangsta sh*t.”

Unbeknownst to me, Granny was regularly calling shots over the phone, dispatching orders to her siblings and nieces and nephews. This day, she decided to let me back in on the operation.

Granny would offer up a tough scenario and ask my opinion on what I’d do if I had a limitless supply of money to fix it. At first, I thought she was taking scenes out of the soap operas she devours. Over time, I realized the scenarios she’d offer up were nothing like what was on TV at the time.

Most often, the two of us would figure out how to divvy up that closet of stacks Cuzzo showed me. We put our vote on which families in The Elders’ and VIPs’ hood would get their light bills paid that month. Whatever was left over at the end of the month, we saved a portion of for ourselves and funneled the rest into that church with the family pew.

One of the toughest scenarios we encountered was that of the junkie mom.

Junkie Mom was one of the many people from that hood who bet for me in that other game. Granny told me The VIPs were ready to wipe her out because she owed them a lot of money and hadn’t paid up.

“What would you do?” Granny asked me.

I told her I would spare the junkie, not only because I personally got a lot of money from her, but also because I knew she had five small kids living in a one-bedroom apartment there. If The VIPs wiped her out, who would take care of her kids?

Granny was pleased. “You might be an angel after all,” she said, and delivered our verdict in a call to The Elders.

Junkie Mom was spared, but wound up dying anyway a few years later from a drug overdose. Her five kids grew up and joined The VIPs.

Soon after Granny let me in on the higher level aspects of that other game, she moved in with my immediate family. I was fed more rules of the game daily: introductions are everything, so make sure they’re good ones; fear no one; be clever—but not a smart a$$, nobody likes a smart a$$—and hungrier than the rest to get ahead; getting A’s and winning awards is the way out of difficult situations; if somebody feels some type of way about that, 1. F*ck ‘em and 2. Give ‘em more reasons to talk and be jealous; every time you leave the house, remember you’re representing more than yourself: you’re representing me, my kids, and your cousins, too; carry yourself well and always be prepared; as often as you can, show people we’re not part of that other game’s team.

Et cetera, et cetera.

I took vigorous mental notes over the years, but the downside to receiving all that wisdom so young and so often is that one gets jaded quickly.

Hearing about everyone else’s issues and trying to solve them while also keeping grown folks from coming at each other’s necks got very messy and exhausting, even with Granny on my side. By the time I was thirteen, I felt like I’d sacrificed my childhood so ungrateful people could live better. I was all the way over it and wanted out of The Life, but couldn’t see a way out. The Life was all I knew.

Around this time, my middle school received the results of a standardized test taken a few months earlier. Even though my grades had started to slip from the stress of playing that other game, my English teacher came up to me excitedly, saying I scored the highest of all the students in the school.

My unenthused demeanor concerned her. She wanted to know why scoring yet another win wasn’t cause for excitement.

I told her some of what I got into after school hours with Granny and how I was feeling the burnout from it. She asked why I was put in that other game, and I told her my history and the battles of my youth. My middle school English teacher was the first non-family member to label what I was part of: a gang.

I burst out laughing, not seeing the connection between TV and movie gangsters and Granny and myself. I saw none of our family in shows or movies like that.

Very seriously, Teacher asked if I wanted out.

“It’ll be tough since you live with one of the major players,” she said. “Tough, but not impossible.”

After consulting with outside resources (“No cops,” she promised), she came back the following day and asked if I wanted to participate in a study.


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Monday

All's fair in love and war


When Cuzzo and I got back to the apartment, one of The Elders had a new game for us to play.

I didn’t see any boards or game pieces anywhere, though.

“This is a different type of game, baby girl,” Cuzzo said. “One where we always get the bad guy. Remember your preschool friend? In this game we go after the bad guys that did that to him.”

I was intrigued.

The way Cuzzo put it, all I’d have to do in this game was stand outside, do nothing, and get the bad guys close enough for the VIPs to handle the rest.

We played this game once a week after church, while I was still dressed in my Sunday Best. Like Cuzzo said, all I did was stand outside while the creepers approached, one by one. The Elder who started this game and Cuzzo kept watch from windows overlooking the block while an ever-changing handful of our other “cousins” waited in a van around the corner.

When the creepers got within arm’s reach, it was on: the van full of fam sped around the corner, snatched the creeper up, duct-taped a bag over his head, dragged him into the van and sped off again down the block.

For months this happened, every Sunday after church. It was astonishing seeing those guys snatched up over and over again, like lemmings. Or a live-action movie. In fact, this other game was so much like watching a movie that, after a couple weeks of playing, I started directing it.

First, I took it upon myself to inform an approaching creeper what was about to go down.

“You’re about to die,” I said to him.

The creeper laughed and asked who taught me words like that.

I didn’t get a chance to answer before the van sped around the corner like clockwork and the creeper met his fate.

Within a week of starting this other game—maybe even a little before this new game had begun—Cuzzo and I established such a connection that we were speaking to each other without using words. He’d think something and I’d feel it, and vice versa.

One Sunday I was standing there catching creepers when, out of nowhere, this feeling of extreme boredom washed over me. It wasn’t a feeling I immediately recognized, especially while playing a game. I looked up at Cuzzo peering through the blinds. Our eyes met and he nodded.

I told a standby VIP sitting on the front stoop that if they really want to make this game fun, they should try switching up the kinds and colors of cars they use. As an added bonus, the cops can’t trace the activity (something everyone involved seemed especially concerned about) since a different car is used every week.

The VIP perked up and spread word to the others.

Next time I came over, The VIPs sped around the corner in a blue van instead of their usual black. Some weeks they rolled through in a full body pickup truck. My fave was when they used stolen luxury cars: Benzs, BMWs, Jags speeding down the block overflowing with saviors and foes.

After that, grown folks in the neighborhood started coming up to me, giving me a dollar or two “for my service.” My mom always taught me not to accept gifts from strangers. But Cuzzo always taught me to Get Money, so I channeled him for a second opinion.

After playing that other game the following Sunday, I asked one guy who came up to me how much he was willing to bet I’d catch this one creeper we kept hearing about on the block… and it was a hell of a lot more than a dollar. The next person who came up, a very sweet old lady The Elders told me was heavily involved in the church there, bet her rent money I’d catch him. Others bet $20 here, $50 there. By the time I turned seven, I was making $100 a week just standing there and doing nothing.

Cuzzo always told me what I great job I was doing, helping the kids in the community. By keeping these bad guys off the streets and making money, we were doing A Good Thing, he said.

I told him this game was too easy.

“I tell them to their face they’re gonna die and they still fall for it. Weird people give me their money to see creepers killed every week.”

Cuzzo nodded knowingly. “It’s their nature,” he said.

He paused for a moment, sensing something was amiss.

“If you want out, you know what to do.”

I walked up to The Elder who started this other game and told her I could stand outside and catch all the creepers they wanted, but I’m still not catching the ones into boys.

She paused for a moment. Then she called the other Elders over, excitement in her voice.

She told the others that I was an angel. She used my age at the time and the fact that Cuzzo and I could talk without words as proof. The fact that I could play such a dangerous game and emerge unscathed—plus the amount of money I brought in—was further proof, according to this Elder.

The others formed a circle around me, staring in awe and talking among themselves in whispers. I felt indifferent about the matter and didn’t understanding all the fuss surrounding it. All I knew was I made it out of this other game a winner with big bank.

From then on, any business I had was conducted indoors, just like Cuzzo and The Elders.

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Wednesday

Everything has a cost

After Cuzzo crowned me queen of the kids on his block, we visited the VIPs much more regularly. During one such visit, Cuzzo took me on a walk around the 'hood. This was A Big Deal since Cuzzo rarely ventured outside. The first thing I noticed was that the block was empty. No people, no birds… no nothing. Even stray animals crossed the street at the sight of us walking down the block. “Is it about to rain?” I asked Cuzzo. “Nobody’s outside.” “That’s because they know better,” he said. “They’re watching though.” He pointed toward the windows overlooking the street. We walked to the corner store. “Get whatever you want, baby girl. On the house.” I grabbed an armful of candy and other snacks while Cuzzo looked on in silence. On our way out, Cuzzo nodded to the cashier and we left without paying. As we headed back to the apartment, the eerie quiet of the streets swallowed us whole.

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Monday

Taking the psycho path


Since kindergarten, the enemy (PPs) has been drawn to me. It's the classic battle of Good vs. Evil; they can’t resist the temptation. PPs are predatory by nature and constantly seek out potential victims, preying on the weak-minded and people who seem like they’ll stay silent. Sometimes that potential victim appears to them as a pensive young girl with her nose in a book, just minding her business. Here’s some news for you if you didn’t already know:
It’s a trap, b*tch!

A lot of people don't like to think of children as PPs; it makes them uncomfortable. But they have to start somewhere.

PP#1 made himself known immediately.

Everyday it was something new: loud and frequent tantrums; an incredible level of violence: the cops were called once for threats PP#1 made toward our teacher and teacher’s aid—in kindergarten, mind you; an extreme lack of respect for authority figures: our teacher’s skirt ripped during one tantrum of his; later on, PP#1 revealed he ripped it on purpose to humiliate her in front of the class.

Our teacher’s attention was constantly redirected toward PP#1 and his antics. It was literally never-ending with this kid.

While PP#1 terrorized our classroom, I stayed above the madness, doing my work and minding my business. I guess PP#1 wasn’t used to not receiving huge amounts of attention. Everyone else fell for it, but not me. This confused and angered him.

One day while perfecting my tumbling routine during free play, PP#1 ran up behind me, grabbed my butt, and flipped me to the ground head first. I sat up dizzy, head pounding, nose bleeding—and furious. Luckily, the kindergarten aid saw all this go down and promptly informed the teacher, who sent PP#1 to the principal’s office while I went to the school nurse.

That's the thing about PPs: they might seem like normal people up to a certain point, but you'll always find serious flaws in their logic… major oversights. PP#1’s major oversight was spilling all his secrets to me. Even though he flipped me that day and bloodied my nose, I was one of the few other kids he talked to in class, precisely because I was quiet. He had the balls to say to me one day that he didn’t know I could speak until he made my nose bleed. I thought back to my older cousin and how we love us some curious, stupid motherf*ckers. After PP#1 said that, I decided to show this kid just how big my voice actually is.

In first grade, I had the pleasure of having PP#1 in my class again. One day, he made the incredibly unwise decision to try me again, this time with another boy as his partner-in-crime. PP#1 told me that they were going to rape every girl in the classroom, including the teacher. He said he’d start with me because I was the smartest… like that makes any sense.

Before he could even finish his sentence and approach, I stabbed PP#1 in the eye with a No. 2 pencil. (They never see the left hook coming.) The other boy ran away while PP#1 writhed in agony on the ground.

The teacher ran over and escorted him to the nurse’s office. She came back sometime later that afternoon without him, and resumed teaching as if nothing had happened. It was the first time in two years that our classroom was silent and us kids could learn in peace.

After school that day, the teacher asked me what happened earlier with PP#1. She said I had “Got him good,” and since I was typically about mine and not a violent person, she wanted all the deets. So I gave up everything, starting with the flipping incident in kindergarten. The color left her face after I told her what PP#1 said prior to his stabbing. I asked her how bad the damage was to his eye, but she wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say.

I found out just how bad it was when PP#1 came back to school the following week. He had an eye patch and looked an awful lot like a pirate. I told him to tell the other kids why he looks like that now, and surprise! He couldn’t speak. Every time somebody said something—anything—to him, especially if they were female, his one good eye would tear up. Since PP#1 rarely said anything after his stabbing, I got to say all I wanted, all the time. And our classroom continued to be peaceful.

Until the parent-teacher conference, that is.

The teacher had summoned all of our parents together to discuss the stabbing. PP#1 was there, the boy who ran away, me, and all of our moms. I relished the opportunity to tell everyone The Full Story.

As the teacher introduced everyone, and before I even got around to telling them what PP#1 said right before I stabbed him, PP#1’s mom had an outburst:

“YOU LET A GIRL DO THIS TO YOU?!”

She backhanded him in front of all of us. The eye patch had come off by this point, having been replaced by some really thick-lensed glasses that flew across the room. Again, PP#1 said nothing. What can you say to… that?

After reminding PP#1’s mom that the cops were right outside the school building, our teacher instructed me to begin telling The Full Story. I looked over at PP#1’s mom, but the teacher told me to look directly at her and tell it, just as I had a week or so earlier.

After that, we never heard from PP#1 again. His mother immediately withdrew him from the school, and freedom was ours. I told my teacher I was concerned about PP#1’s mom; she was REALLY mad about the whole situation. Teacher told me that she concerned everyone present that day, but with my kind of family and an entire school district on my side, I didn’t have to worry about a thing.

“They’re the ones who should be worried, if not outright terrified of you.” She winked at me.

With PP#1 gone, I continued my reign of the school. Teachers came up off their A+s with ease, and I won quite a few local and national awards for both academics and art in elementary school, all starting in first grade.

Cuzzo was so proud of me. After the parent-teacher conference, my mom and I visited the VIPs again. When we arrived, it was to great fanfare. Little kids were running alongside our car as we parked, trying to get a glimpse. One of my cousins came out, scooped me up, and handed me to Cuzzo, who was standing on the front stoop. As I hung there awkwardly in the crook of his arm, Cuzzo told all the little kids to gather ‘round and observe their queen.

My mom and I both looked up at him like, “Really, Cuz?” and he pointed our gaze toward the block full of kids popping up around us like, “Yeah, really.”

Even though I was mortified at the time, I gotta give it to him: Cuzzo has quite the sense of humor.

And so it was throughout elementary and middle school. Cuzzo taught me much about The Game during those formative years, things that I continue to use today. That one PP I met in kindergarten and destroyed in first grade, Cuzzo told me there’s thousands more out there, waitin’ and underestimatin’. He told me I was related to some of the best PPs out there—or worst, depending on how you look at it. He told me that I already know all their secrets—PP#1 gave up a lot of them voluntarily—and that those secrets can be used against them if they decide to step out of line.

In other words, Cuzzo helped me take my gangsta to a whole new level.

At six years old.

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Blood is thicker than Kool-Aid


The summer before kindergarten, my mother took me to visit some Very Important People we’re related to. She had told them how, as a preschooler, I transformed my friend Moe’s life in less than a year’s time. These VIPs wanted to see me personally to tell me what a great job I did. At the time, I was still unsure of what made the simple act of being a friend so remarkable. These VIPs were going to shed some light on the situation for me.

These VIPs of ours live in the kind of neighborhood where, to this day, needles and dope bags are found on the ground; gunshots are heard often and mattresses are kept close by to press against windows in case there’s any stray bullets; regular cops won’t do, the US Guard roam the streets with AK-47s, M16s, and other assault rifles (really); and you’re lucky to make it out alive—and without kids or a drug addiction—past age 18. It is literally the worst neighborhood in the most crime-infested part of the city.

And these VIPs of ours run it.

The day my mom took me to visit them, I noticed a long, dark trail of something starting from just in front of our parking spot, down the block to our VIPs’ building, up the front stairs of the building, and up three more flights of stairs to the spot right outside of our VIPs’ door. The trail stopped there; an even larger pool of whatever it was had accumulated on the landing.

I looked up wide-eyed at my mother.

“What is that?”

“Kool-Aid,” she said.

The only problems were: 1) Who wastes that much sweet, delicious Kool-Aid? and 2) Kool-Aid doesn’t dry brown.

Once we got inside the apartment and greeted everyone, my mother chatted it up with The Elders while my older cousin took me aside. I asked him about the trail leading up to the door. He asked me if I was afraid of it.

“No. I don’t know what it is.”

“It’s blood. It’s been there a week. The other kids and grownups here are scared to look at it.”

“Oh. I’m not like the other kids.”

He laughed.

“That’s right. You saved a little boy’s life, didn’t you? All the kids around here think you’re a hero.”

I blushed and looked down, embarrassed that others knew what had happened before I had the chance to fully process it myself. I failed to understand then what would happen many more times in the future: my reputation had preceded me.

Cuzzo put his finger under my chin and lifted my head up.

“Don’t be ashamed of that, baby girl. You did a good thing. If you keep it up, you can do many more good things.”

“How?” I asked.

Cuzzo led me to his bedroom and walked toward his closet door. As he opened it, stacks on stacks of dollar bills taller than I was were revealed.

In front of this closet full of stacks, my cousin taught me some basic rules of The Game.

Cuzzo said, “Just like you’re not scared to save somebody’s life or scared to see that blood trail, don’t be scared to get physical. There’s some crazy people out here who will try and step to you because you’re a girl and a kid, but you’re smarter than that. Make ‘em regret it.”

Cuzzo said, “I hear you like to read. Keep that up, baby girl. Knowledge is power.”

Cuzzo said, “This ‘hood here, never be a part of it, even though you, your mom and her brothers, your grandmama and her siblings, and my grandmama and her siblings all come from it. You only visit and do business here, never live here.”

Cuzzo said, “If you keep doing good things, not everyone is gonna like it. In fact, some people will hate it. F*ck what these other b*tches & n*ggas have to say about what you do or don’t do. Get money.”

I laughed at the cussing. Adults never kept it real with me like that, especially at that age. I laughed again some years later when Biggie Smalls & Junior M.A.F.I.A. came out with the song “Get Money,” whose refrain goes: “F*ck b*tches, get money. F*ck n*ggas, get money.” Because of what my cousin taught me that day, I automatically knew Biggie was the truth when it came to rapping.

Finally, Cuzzo said, “If you ever have a problem, baby girl, you let me know. I’ll handle it.”

Before we joined The Elders and my mom again, I asked my cousin what happened to cause that blood trail leading up to the door.

He paused and looked me straight in the eyes.

“Somebody didn’t mind their business,” he said, the laughter of The Elders and my mother rising faintly in the background.

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